It would be interesting to get a full run-down on Michael Cheika’s reasoning for his starting selections in last night’s game against South Africa, because on balance it seems he got it completely wrong.
Australia came away with a tense and deserved win, yet 50 minutes into the match, they were down 20-7 – which could have been more if not for some staunch defending just before halftime.
It was a pulsating finish, but it would never have even been possible without the impact made by Australia’s bench, highlighting the fact that the guys on the pine (and possibly not even in the 23) are Australia’s best chance for winning the World Cup.
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The subs Nick Phipps, Scott Sio, Matt Toomua, James Horwill and Dave Pocock all made big statements about their place in the team and some of them must get a run in Argentina in the next round.
Earlier in the week, Cheika said that he had chosen his 9/10 combination because of the variation that their skill set might bring to the game, however it was a lack of variation that really hurt the Wallabies until the subs came on and added something different.
Up until the 50-minute mark, the tactics simply weren’t good enough to win the game. Presumably the intent was to run the big South African forwards around with lateral movement, but the problem was that they weren’t creating any forward momentum and this made it too easy for the South African defensive line.
The first issue was that the forwards weren’t causing any doubt in the defence. One off runners were simply hitting the line without any intent to do anything else. Compare that to the All Blacks forwards who constantly look to offload which instantly makes the defensive line do a double take. It draws in defenders and creates holes wider.
The South African defence was able to fan out and push them back while making numerous turn overs because the starting loose forward trio for Australia is too loose. All three loosies for Australia are good attacking players, but there is a lack of balance there between dynamic attack and hard graft.
This is where David Pocock made all the difference. His leadership and nous really changed the dynamic of the ruck battle. He was smart in contact and unlike Michael Hooper (who looks to make as much ground as possible and sometimes isolates himself) he played the Australian ruck into sensible positions. He also played a lot of ruck support, which was missing in the first 50.
Another issue with the balance of the loosies stems from the tight five. Scott Fardy seems to be starting because no one can lift Skelton and they need another jumper. That makes it very difficult to have a Pocock/Hooper combo, a combo that did offer the right balance of dynamic and graft at the end of the game.
Like Pocock, James Horwill offered an experienced voice off the bench. He was energetic in his running and often ran the ball back at different angles which stretched and manipulated the defensive line.
Another interesting tactic relating to the locks was having Will Skelton as a dummy jumper at the front of the line out. He doesn’t win a lot of line out ball because of his aforementioned heft, so having him as a dummy jumper doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
In the front row, Scott Sio showed that he should be the starting prop. He was the strongest Australian scrummager in Super Rugby and up until his entry in the game, the Australian scrum was leaking points. Both he and Holmes turned that around and started putting the SA scrum under pressure.
In the backs, Phipps really put the heat on Will Genia. His passing and clearance speed was a class above Genia’s and it started to unlock the fast game that Australia were trying to play from the beginning. Genia still hasn’t found full form and will not do so until he rediscovers his running game.
Similar to offloading forwards, a sniping halfback puts a lot of pressure on the defensive line. That was the variation that Cheika was looking for but didn’t get.
Toomua too, offered more consistency than Quade Cooper who was content to simply go lateral all day. Toomua straightened the line and drew in defenders before sending the pass. He was solid but Bernard Foley supporters will be making a lot more noise in the build up to next week’s game.
In saying all this, it is possible that Cheika identified South Africa’s weaknesses and decided that his best players would offer him more at the end of the game.
If that was the case, then he played it superbly, however given that Australia have one of the toughest pools in the rugby world cup, they won’t want to go into too final periods down 20-7.
Perhaps starting last night’s bench is the way to go?